America was talked about in Italy 150 years before Columbus. Interview with Paolo Chiesa

In a 14th-century manuscript, Galvanus Flame's Cronica universalis, the first known reference to the American continent in the Mediterranean area, 150 years before Columbus, has been discovered. An interview with the author of the discovery, Paolo Chiesa.

The American continent was known in the Mediterranean area as many as 150 years before Columbus: this was discovered a few weeks ago by a team from the State University of Milan, led by Professor Paolo Chiesa, professor of Middle Latin and humanistic philology. In a manuscript by Galvanus Flame from around 1340, the Cronica universalis, there is indeed mention of a land called “Marckalada” located beyond Greenland. But that’s not all: in the same manuscript, an important piece of information was also discovered that anticipates the first known contacts between Ethiopia and Western Europe by a hundred years. We spoke with Professor Paolo Chiesa about how this discovery was made, its implications and the novelties of the Cronica universalis. The interview is by Ilaria Baratta.

La mappa di Sigurd Stefansson (la cosiddetta Skálholt Map), disegnata nel 1590 da un maestro islandese, che riproduce con molta fantasia l'area dell'Atlantico nord-occidentale come (secondo lui) se l'immaginavano i Vichinghi
Sigurd Stefansson’s map (the so-called Skálholt Map), drawn in 1590 by an Icelandic master, which very imaginatively reproduces the area of the Northwest Atlantic as (according to him) the Vikings imagined it

IB. What did the discovery of a mention of America in a pre-1492 text mean, and what questions does it reopen?

PC. The interest of the discovery is the fact that for the first time there is a mention of the American continent, or at any rate of lands beyond the Atlantic, in the Mediterranean area: these were in fact rumors that circulated in the area of Scandinavia, especially in Iceland, although they were mostly rumors related to legendary situations, such as those of travelers of the past who told of having arrived on lands that were not previously known. So they were very geographically circumscribed references: outside that area, no such news circulated. In this case, on the other hand, we have news from a hundred and fifty years before Columbus that comes from Milan: the writer who reported it in Milanese, Galvano Fiamma, was from Milan, however, there are very strong indications that the news is of Genoese origin, because the Milanese writer is talking about maritime sources, so the city to which to most likely link these sources is precisely Genoa. This discovery reopens an issue that has been posed several times in the past as a hypothesis, but without any evidence or support, namely the fact that, in the Mediterranean in general and in Genoa in particular, rumors about lands beyond the Atlantic were already circulating before Columbus. This is interesting because if Columbus, or the early Italian or even Spanish navigators, had news of these rumors, then it is clear that they became an incentive for travel.

So in what sense did Galvano Fiamma have contact with the city of Genoa?

Galvano is a writer who lives in Milan and writes several chronicles, mostly about Milanese subjects, however in this text, a chronicle that has instead a universal dimension because he wants to make a kind of history of the world, he repeatedly cites Genoese sources: the most interesting is a booklet that is otherwise lost to us (we know it only from Galvano), written by the priest of the church of the port of Genoa, whose name was Giovanni da Carignano and who had strong geographical interests. Galvano mentions this booklet [the Tractatus de mappa, nda] several times, and this makes us think that he was in Genoa or at any rate had very close relationships that allowed him to receive sources from that city.

How did you come to understand that the text mentioned America and what was the difficulty, since there are no written sources regarding what Galvanus says in the phrase “American”?

It was a didactic work done with my master’s degree students at the University of Milan: as an exercise they did the transcription of this text. The Cronica universalis is an unpublished text and moreover it is very long, so it was divided into parts among the students. The student who was in charge of the transcription of the portion where we discovered the news realized that the sources were missing here: she could not locate any written sources that spoke of these lands (after all, Galvanus spoke of maritime sources). In the text there is a reference to this land called “Marckalada,” which was not clear where it was. We then set out to study it more carefully and realized that because of the geographical location Galvanus assigns to it, but especially because of the name, this land corresponds to a land called “Markland,” that is, “land of the woods,” mentioned in some of the sagas. This is the route by which we identified the place.

Galvano Fiamma in una miniatura dal Codice Trivulziano, 1438, c. 1r. L?opera appartiene all?Archivio Storico Civico e Biblioteca Trivulziana - © Comune di Milano
Galvano Fiamma in a miniature from the Codice Trivulziano, 1438, c. 1r. Lopera belongs to theArchivio Storico Civico and Biblioteca Trivulziana - © Comune di Milano
La parte della Cronica universalis dove si cita la terra chiamata Marckalada, qui evidenziata in rosso.
The part of Galvano Fiamma’s Cronica universalis where the land called “Marckalada” is mentioned, here highlighted in red. The text reads, “Inde versus occidens est terra quedam que dicitur Marckalada, ubi gigantes habitant et sunt hedifitia habentia lapides saxeos tam grandes quod nullus homo posset in hedifitio collocare nisi essent gygantes maximi. Ibi sunt arbores virides et animalia et aves multe nimis. Nec umquam fuit aliquis marinarius qui de ista terra nec de eius condictionibus aliquid scire potuerit pro certo” (“Still further to the west is a land called Marckalada. The inhabitants of the place are giants: there are buildings of stones there that are so large that no man would be able to lay them, except great giants. Green trees grow there and lots of animals and birds live there. However, there has never been any sailor who has been able to know with certainty news about this land and its characteristics.”)

Why was it chosen to carry out an educational project on this work?

Because it is a very fascinating work, because it is unpublished, and because, being preserved in a single manuscript that is privately owned, it is not available to the public (however, through some of my research we managed to locate the owner, contacted him, and were able to work on it). And then, from a didactic point of view, transcribing a medieval manuscript with the purpose of bringing the text to the public (because for that then is the ultimate purpose) is a very useful work, because it helps to develop a range of knowledge and skills that are very rare: attention to the writing, relationship between text and image, decoding a form of writing that is not the usual one, translation, transcription, importing and transforming it into a text suitable for today’s audience, and so on. A very didactically useful exercise indeed. And then we were lucky because it also turned out to be a very interesting text.

What is it and what is Galvanus Flame’s Cronica universalis about?

Galvanus’ project, as the prologue to this work explains, was to write a chronicle covering the whole world-a fairly common literary genre in the Middle Ages, not a particularly original idea. About the whole world, let us specify, and about all eras, so from creation to the present day, that is, to the beginning of the fourteenth century. Actually then the text is interrupted at a certain point (very early on: in biblical times, at the time of the first kings of Israel) and was not continued, we do not know why, perhaps because Galvanus died, since the Cronica universalis is one of the last works he wrote, so it probably got interrupted there. However, since it is a history of the whole world and not just Europe or the Mediterranean, Galvanus often makes geographical digressions, partly because he was interested in showing the totality of the earth (or what was then thought to be the earth). And it is within one of these geographical digressions that we find the reference to Marckalada. In that portion of the text he is talking about the northern lands, Scandinavia and Iceland, and gradually he comes to talk about other lands that lie further west.

What other surprises did the Cronica universalis reveal?

The other surprise, which perhaps from a historical point of view is even more important (although it is less conspicuous and less sensational because it does not concern America), is a part that comes from the book of John of Carignan mentioned earlier. In this part, Ethiopia is mentioned, because Galvanus tells, reporting the book of the Genoese priest, about an Ethiopian embassy that is said to have arrived in Europe and in particular in Genoa around 1315: in the Cronica, therefore, all the details of this embassy are mentioned, and in particular what the ambassadors had told about their land. This is at least a hundred years ahead of those of the earliest known contacts between Ethiopia and Western Europe, which hitherto dated to the early fifteenth century. This is therefore a very strong element, since it proves that there were even earlier relations, and moreover it does so with details and with details of the history of the customs of Ethiopia that are also very interesting for scholars of these subjects.

What have been and what will be the developments of the project after the discovery?

The goal remains to publish the entire work, but it is very long, as I said. We have finished the transcription, however between the transcription and the critical edition (the operation we would like to do) there will still be some of steps, which will take some time. I think about two years, not less because there is one very important aspect that is missing, which is the identification of all the sources cited by Galvanus: the author in this work mentions a lot of books and news of all kinds, and to do a good service to the reader we have to identify them. This is very time-consuming work, but it is our goal: we already have a publishing house willing to publish the text, but it will take at least a couple of years of work.

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